The Trump administration’s “unprecedented” effort to break up and shrink a national monument has been done at least 18 times before, with presidents of both parties exercising power to significantly reduce the size of U.S. landmarks established by their predecessors.
Environmentalists and congressional Democrats are framing the current battle — the Interior Department’s proposal to resize Bears Ears National Monument in Utah — as a first-of-its-kind expansion of executive power, a move that stretches to the breaking point the century-old Antiquities Act, which gives presidents authority to create monuments.
The resizing of Bears Ears is just one piece of the administration’s broader review of nearly two dozen national monuments.
The Sierra Club, one of the nation’s most powerful environmental groups, issued a fundraising email last week calling the Bears Ears proposal a “legally unprecedented action.”
Congressional Democrats voiced similar objections. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon called the entire monument review “legally dubious,” and Sen. Ron Wyden, also of Oregon, said the president’s executive order calling for the review “flies in the face of a century-old bipartisan tradition.”
“It can be done, and past presidents have done it. It demonstrated the truth of what I’ve said all along: Just as no Congress can bind a future Congress, no president can bind the nation in perpetuity. It doesn’t make any sense,” said William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group that battled the federal government in court over President Clinton’s creation of the massive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
That monument is also under review by the Trump administration.
“I don’t think it would take the courts long at all to dispose of any challenge to the presidential authority to do this,” Mr. Pendley said.
The Antiquities Act — which says monuments should be limited to the smallest area compatible with the site or object being protected — does not explicitly give presidents power to downsize monuments or eliminate them altogether.
But for more than a century, presidents have cut monuments, and their efforts haven’t been thwarted by Congress or the courts.
It has been done at least 18 times since the Antiquities Act was signed into law in 1906, according to information from the National Park Service and the House Natural Resources Committee.
Most were relatively small. Franklin D. Roosevelt cut Arizona’s Wupatki National Monument by 52 acres, and Dwight D. Eisenhower cut Alaska’s Glacier Bay by 4,193 acres. William Howard Taft, John F. Kennedy, Calvin Coolidge and Harry S. Truman also reduced sizes of monuments.
Eisenhower and Roosevelt were the most active, cutting six and four monuments, respectively.
Washington’s Mount Olympus, now a part of Olympic National Park, has been the most frequent target. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt granted monument status covering more than 610,000 acres.
But its size was quickly reduced. Taft in 1912 eliminated 160 acres. Wilson dramatically cut the monument by about 50 percent in 1915. Coolidge reduced the monument by 640 acres, according to National Park Service data.
Despite the history, environmental groups say, the Trump administration’s monument review is under a vastly different landscape.
Indeed, no recent monument designations have been targeted for reductions. Kennedy was the last to downsize a monument, cutting Utah’s Natural Bridges by 320 acres. That monument was established in 1909.
In addition, conservation organizations say, two laws — the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act and updates to the National Park Service Organic Act in 1970 — seem to give Congress wide latitude when it comes to adjusting monuments.
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